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The church year always fascinates me. On Christmas Day we celebrate Jesus' birth. A mere two weeks after that, we celebrate Jesus' baptism. Remember, Jesus was baptized as an adult, not as an infant, so two weeks is pretty quick in the scheme of things. By mid-April we've already gone through his life and we find ourselves preparing for his death and resurrection. A life lived in four months. A ministry completed in 16 weeks. After Easter we are left with eight months to pick up the pieces and pull Jesus' life together until we start anew next December 25th.
Today, I am going to try to slow some of that timing down. As the church calendar has just fired the starter's gun beginning Jesus' hectic journey through human life, I want to spend the next few minutes examining some of the growing pains Jesus would have experienced while undergoing the transformation from a young boy born under amazing circumstances to the prophet/Messiah he would become.
As Protestant Christians, we believe that through the mysterious ways of God's creative powers, Jesus was made fully human and fully divine. We see evidence of his humanity throughout his ministry, from the frustration, anger, and compassion he shows toward the disciples to the anguish he exhibited when he wept at Lazarus' death, to the love he received from Mary Magdalene. We know that Jesus knew the height and depth of human emotions.
I try to imagine what Jesus went through as an adolescent-that time of life when coming of age is so confusing. It is hard enough on the average teenager. What would it have been like for Jesus?
One of the great mysteries of Christianity was what Jesus was like as a child. All we have to go on are the few verses in Luke 2 which tell the story of Jesus at age 12 worrying his parents to death. You'll recall that he stayed in the Jerusalem temple while the group with whom his family was traveling had left town. I love to think of Jesus as a typical adolescent looking up at his frantic, angry, worried mother when she'd come all the way back to find him-like, "What's the big deal? Of course, I'm here." Ah, yes, even Mary knew the frustrations of a mother with a teen-age son.
Other than this story we know nothing of Jesus' childhood, adolescence, and young adult life. All the other gospels either skip from his birth to the beginning of his ministry or just start at the beginning of his ministry which they say was "at about 30 years old."
Our gospel passage for today finds us in the temple with that 30-something year old Jesus. He is teaching. It's not just any generic temple in which Jesus is teaching. This is his hometown synagogue. Jesus is preaching to the people of his village.
As Luke reports it, Jesus has come home after having two amazing experiences. He's been baptized, a moment of crystal clear spiritual direction when he was claimed as God's beloved child, with whom God is well pleased. Then Luke tells us, Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, spent 40 days in the wilderness trying to understand just what it means to be God's Beloved Child. He suffered hunger and thirst. And in that weakened condition, he was lured by the strongest of human temptations.
It is only after surviving that wilderness experience that Jesus comes, again filled with the Holy Spirit, to his home country of Galilee to begin his public ministry.
He moved throughout Galilee teaching in the synagogues, and the word spread throughout the country that he was a religious phenom. So, by the time he reached his home temple, the audience was excited to hear what Jesus had to say.
You can imagine the anticipation. Think of a child you know or knew who has grown up in your church. Imagine her going away to college and then to seminary. Upon her ordination, she has received a call back in your hometown and has chosen her home church-your church-as the neutral site for the pastor nominating committee from the other church to hear her. The Sunday arrives for you and the congregation to support her in this all important preaching engagement. There is much anticipation, hope, and pride all wound up in that moment. Really, no matter what that beloved-church-member-turned-preacher says in the sermon could ruin the excitement of the moment.
In the passage we heard for today, Luke tells us Jesus was received in a similar fashion. As the congregants silently awaited in anticipation, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah the familiar passage which reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
Luke reports that after Jesus completed the reading of the scroll, he sat down-in a teacher's position-and assured them that that particular scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing of it. Well, the people sat there around Jesus transfixed. He had hit a home run. Luke says they "all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." What a perfect day it was. They couldn't believe that Joseph's son, their very own neighbor, could preach like that!
Then, something peculiar happened. As the people saw it, something snapped in their hometown-boy-turned-religious-hero. His mood changed. After that "nice talk" he had given them, he begin talking to them like those prophets of old. He even called himself a prophet and opened up old wounds regarding how Elijah and Elisha gave assistance to people who weren't their own when their own people were in trouble. "What is he saying?" they began to ask. "Wasn't he just proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor on us? After all, we know him and he knows us. He must have been blessing us. Certainly he is not saying what we think we hear him saying now-that God's blessing is not on us; rather it is on others, even Gentiles."
What was initially a cause for rejoicing--that they would gain an unexpected bounty of having a prophet arise from their midst--turned sour when Jesus told them that it was not they who would be receiving the bounty. It would be others, outsiders. Yes, even Gentiles.
"Oh, yeah, that's the son of Joseph we remember," the people would say, beginning to reflect on his past. "He never was really all that nice. He always went about his own business and didn't really go along with what the rest of us were doing. He was kind of off in his own world. He never really fit in. He's always had this air about him that he was somehow more special. Remember the time heÉ." And, oh, how the stories would go on, building the ire of the crowd.
It's amazing what happens when you challenge people, when you touch their sensitivities. When Jesus opened up the scroll and spoke about how it had been fulfilled in their hearing, everything had been status quo. He did exactly as they expected. But once he challenged them, he had gone outside of their level of comfort and all of the old, less-than-pleasant memories-the ones of which they were willing to forgive him when he was the famous star-came flooding back and they were ready to let him have it. They were ready to throw him off a cliff. And they even tried.
It's basic human nature, really, when we are taken by surprise and especially when done so unpleasantly, that our surprise turns to anger. The Letter of James in the New Testament speaks well to why the synagogue dwellers turned on Jesus so quickly. At the beginning of chapter 4, James writes:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
The community in Jesus' hometown wanted Jesus to be their tailor-made prophet, their theologian-in-residence who would read them scripture and tell them how God was on their side, that everything in their lives would be okay. He wasn't supposed to make waves. He wasn't supposed to challenge them. Challenging them meant growth. And growth means growing pains.
But Jesus wasn't the boy they remembered. He had weathered his own growing pains. He had grown up. He had changed. He had been called by God.
Growing into the role of prophet, one called by God, is never easy. No one ever wants to take on that responsibility. Listen to the voice of the young Jeremiah when he is called by God:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy,' for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord."
With that call from God, Jeremiah was called to the nations "to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." Therein lies the tension. The prophet is called to do some very uncomfortable things, even amongst-and sometimes especially amongst-his or her own people. Jeremiah didn't want to do it. I'm sure Jesus didn't want to do it either. But there comes a time when you have to do what God calls you to do, when you have to trust that God will be "with you to deliver you."
The experience in the temple must have been a terribly difficult transition for Jesus--to go from beloved hometown boy to being chased out of town. Somehow, whether it was a switch turned on when Jesus stood there before his people or if it was the trial of being in the wilderness for 40 days, he listened to the voice of God which said, "Trust me. I've called you and I will deliver you."
Are there many of us who have heard the call of the prophet to lay it all on the line like the prophet has to do? I don't know. I don't know how God has spoken to you. But God has called us in one way or another.
We can respond in a number of ways. One, if we have heard the voice of God urging us to challenge what is comfortable, what is complacent, what needs to be overthrown in order that something fresh and new can be planted, can be built, we must follow through with God's call with integrity.
Secondly, if we haven't heard that call, we might want to listen to the challenging voices around us and resist the urge to throw the one speaking over the nearest cliff. Instead, we have to consider why the challenge causes us so much anger, so much resistance.
Are we afraid to change? Is it just that we'd rather not go through the pain of building something new?
Just as Jesus suffered in the wilderness to get to where God was calling him, just as the Israelites swore with each step they took on the way to the Promised Land, just as the disciples struggled to understand what Jesus was leading them towards in order for them to share in his glory, so too must we accept the challenges and changes, the growing pains, which we must undergo throughout our life's journey in order to go where God calls us.
My friends, on this very day, God is saying,
Before I formed you, I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you.
God has consecrated us to do great things. May we have the courage to accept God's call, growing pains and all. Amen.
Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, you have been with us along our entire life's journey. It was you who knit us together in our mother's womb. It is you who has held our hands throughout the journey and taken us to the place where we are now. May we sit quietly, listening for your still, small voice to the places where you lead us next, and may we have the courage to follow your call. In the Spirit of Jesus who listened and obeyed, we pray. Amen.
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